BVN’s transformational work on the Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Primary School (OLA) Stage 2 project was honoured at the 2019 Learning Environments Australasia Awards for Excellence in Education Facility Design.

The firm was announced category winner for Renovation / Modernisation Over $2M at the awards. BVN had earlier been recognised by Learning Environments with an award in the same category for Stage 1 of the school project.

Led by BVN senior associate Knut Menden, the challenging project involved the transformation of a dark and gloomy, concrete 1970s Telstra building built in the Brutalist style, into a light-filled, engaging and inspiring place of learning.

The brief from OLA school was to create spaces for teachers and students to awaken their imagination, encourage innovation, and provide a physical space that stimulated independent learning. They also wanted their students and teachers to embrace the new school as a place of emotional and physical wellbeing.

The use of timber in school environments is proven to reduce stress and cortisol levels in students, leading to better learning outcomes, concentration and productivity while promoting a sense of wellbeing. The OLA school transformation uses timber extensively throughout the internal spaces – both structurally and as a finish.

However, timber’s benefits extend beyond the wellbeing factor – as a construction material, it is environment-friendly and has excellent energy efficiency. BVN is the first in Australia to use engineered timber to construct an educational facility.

OLA’s design features engineered timber ‘glulam’ columns and beams and cross laminated timber (CLT) walls as well as a CLT acoustic ceiling flooring system. The exterior of the existing concrete structure and new CLT additions have been clad in a highly insulated, custom perforated zinc cladding façade.

High-performance timber framed windows have replaced part of the existing concrete façade, allowing for natural daylight and ventilation in the building. Windows and doors are double glazed to limit noise and distractions.

The entryway leads into a soaring, timber-filled atrium connecting each floor in the four-storey building. Natural light fills the space through the large glass doors that connect to the playground on the ground floor and filters through the holes in the perforated façade that wraps around the building’s upper levels. Each level is connected by a large timber staircase. Facilities also include a school library complete with a suspended reading net, administration areas and verandas, as well as outdoor playgrounds on level 3 and the rooftop.

BVN has designed the classrooms as adaptable spaces using sliding screens and movable furniture. By removing most of the internal walls from the existing structure, class groups can gather on either side of an open timber corridor that runs the length of the building. The design enables a diverse range of configurations for students to have an active role in their learning experience. Spaces can be customised to suit specific learning requirements using movable furniture such as beanbags and desks on wheels as well as floor to ceiling sliding screens. Class groups can either be integrated or split into manageable sizes by simply moving the screens.

Built-in alcoves and small pods have been provided for students to work in small groups or do some independent learning. Spaces are scaled for different age groups with varying ceiling heights and joinery. Large timber doors opening out to wide verandas run along the western end of the school to allow fresh air to circulate and give classes the option to take their learning outside.

Learning Environments jury citation:

Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Primary School has used architecture extremely effectively to support a rigorous planning process and an ambitious design brief. The result is a de-institutionalised and playful learning environment, which perpetuates connectivity and current pedagogical strategies – a proud addition and amenity for the school.

Playful colours, natural materials and inviting 'nooks' blur the boundaries between learning and play whilst facilitating seamless transition between spaces. The end result highlights the high level of planning and attention to the 'guiding design principles'. The architects’ ability to integrate a sense of openness and accessibility throughout the multi-storey building, whilst ensuring no compromise on the functional brief is inspiring.

In addition to an impressive list of ecologically smart initiatives, this school provides 'state of the art' education facilities with outstanding flexibility and opportunity for various multi-modal spaces.

With an engaging narrative which resonated with the school community right from the project initiation, a clever combination of natural materials and integrated gaiety brings the concept to life.

Overall, this building implements and symbolises the 21st century definition of a 'primary school' in a brilliant and exemplary way.